Hannah Barton is a junior at Northwestern University and was a summer intern at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. She is also considering a career as an attorney. In this series, Hannah interviewed a diverse cross-section of law students about their law school expectations, experiences and aspirations. Has the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the legal profession’s reactions and responses altered their perceptions about the practice of law? Will patterns emerge in the subjects’ responses? Will their thoughts align with your assumptions about law students? Read “What Do Law Students Think?” to find out.
By Hannah Barton
Natalie Phillips is a student at Boston University School of Law. Throughout high school and college, she considered becoming a lawyer. Since she graduated with a Biology degree, she is interested in using her science background to pursue intellectual property law, and specifically patent litigation. Before going to law school, she worked for a few years at a Boston law firm in their patent prosecution department, and hopes that in the future she is able to increase the amount of women of color in the intellectual property field.
One thing that surprised Phillips about law school was “the extent that you feel like you always have to be in comparison with other people.” Her first year involved a great deal of reflection about what was worth stressing about and how she could learn to focus on herself. She also learned that it doesn’t necessarily get easier after your first year: “Your second year can be just as difficult, if not more demanding.” There was quite an adjustment from undergrad, to working, and then to law school, since law school involves such a different way of thinking and a skewed work-life balance. She is grateful, however, for all of the opportunities and amount of people she has met through BU.
It’s hard when you don’t have that type of role model, or you can’t envision yourself there because that space hasn’t been made for you– Natalie Phillips
As Phillips has gotten older, she has started to think more about her role as a Black woman in the legal profession. “I’ve always grown up in communities in which I was a minority amongst all my friend groups… so it’s something that’s always been apparent to me, but it’s been more important for me to say something and do something,” she says. She wants to find ways to increase diversity in the profession and help other people of color and of different sexual orientations or abilities to be able to visualize themselves in this career. The lack of representation can be a large barrier for many people, and Phillips hopes to change this: “I’m pretty fortunate in the sense that when I want to do something, I won’t let anything stop me. But a lot of people don’t always have someone to look up to just to say ‘You can do this, even if you don’t see it yourself’. It’s hard when you don’t have that type of role model, or you can’t envision yourself there because that space hasn’t been made for you.” Phillips wants to use her position to give back to her undergrad community and to talk to students interested in law. She is also part of the Black Law Student Association and participates in their efforts to work with firms about who they are hiring.
The lack of representation can be difficult at times, but it also makes Phillips cherish the people she does have to look up to. “I really respect a lot of the women who I’ve worked with who have paved the way and who have come up through a time where the thought of them even being partners wasn’t possible, or very few people imagined them being partners as women of color,” she says. The idea of having these role models excites Phillips, and also pushes her to work harder to become one of those women in the future. Her presence in a firm alone is one step towards increasing the presence of all diverse groups in the legal profession. However, this transition will be slow and gradual, even after the rise of demonstrations about racial justice. “We would love to see overnight change and sometimes that’s really powerful and making a huge impact. I think we’ll get there but it’ll take time,” Phillips says, so it is important to keep up the momentum.
She does think that firms have begun to see a change due to the vocalization of these issues, when in the past there are people who wouldn’t have felt as comfortable speaking up about them. Firms have to take the initiative to not only have diversity and inclusion departments, but also continuously increase their efforts in figuring out where they can make changes and constantly be in communications with the people working for them, as well as the community they are working for.
There is a potential for both the protests and the pandemic to invigorate students to work, especially in public interest. Phillips thinks that if someone was interested in doing this work before, they might want to do it even more so now. However, the financial aspect of the pandemic could present some more concerns than before with this work. “It concerns me, on the public interest side, that there are a lot of opportunities lost because there’s not enough funding or resources for people to use,” she says. On the flip side, there are some more possibilities for work opening up in some corporate areas of the law, like bankruptcy.
For anyone considering becoming a lawyer, Phillips says the best way to get information is to talk to people. “You might hear people say ‘Why do you want to become a lawyer, you don’t want to do that!’” But Phillips says if it’s something you think you’re interested in, you shouldn’t be scared of it, just as long as you are aware of the commitment. It’s also okay to not know exactly what area of law you want to pursue since law school provides such a great opportunity for exploration, and Phillips recommends forming as many connections and relationships while in law school as possible, because who knows where it will lead you.